The quick resolution of passing legislation for the National Broadband Network is an important step to improve health and wellbeing communication for refugee and migrant communities in rural and regional areas of Australia.

Last year the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission’s final report recommended that “… by 2012, every Australian should be able to have a personal electronic health record that will at all times be owned and controlled by that person”. It also argued that a national broadband and telecommunications network would be important in remote and rural Australia to make possible the use of emerging technologies such as home monitoring and the use of data to enhance self-care, as well as providing access to health information and advice portals.

Indeed, Australia has already committed to innovative digital technology projects aimed at supporting health and wellbeing communication. Croakey reports that in Kalkaringi, Northern Territory, Aboriginal Health Workers are using the iPad to collect accurate data for population health status and for use in health programs. In northern Queensland, the Health Interactive Technology Network, in partnership with indigenous communities, has set up touch screen kiosks that can upload and download content, including locally developed health messages shot on digital video, or online information made available by government and health service providers.

Using the internet to support health and wellbeing communication can be tricky territory, however. My research, a qualitative and exploratory project conducted in partnership with the Sudanese and Vietnamese communities in Warrnambool and Robinvale respectively, has found that the internet is not necessarily an effective way of communicating health and wellbeing information to refugee and migrant communities living in rural and regional areas of Victoria.

Focus group participants in both communities reported that a mobile phone is the first piece of digital technology they purchase, and is often seen as a good investment in terms of cost and familiarity with the device. They were more likely to spend money on a mobile than a broadband connection. The internet was used, but often for specific purposes and in limited ways, such as at the workplace as part of their job, or in a school or library where access is free. In turn, this makes accessing online health information, or bandwidth heavy content such as health videos on YouTube, more difficult when users have limited financial resources or lack the skills necessary to interact with online platforms. Participants also expressed the desire to use the internet for health and wellbeing information in the privacy of their homes, and at a time that fitted with their work commitments.

More affordable internet access will help to alleviate some of these problems. While debate continues as to how much cheaper the NBN will actually make internet plans, iiNet chief executive Michael Malone advised in The Australian that the NBN was still likely to provide improved pricing in rural and regional areas “because these are the people who are already paying the most”.

Of course, it is only a first step. Challenges persist in communicating effectively with people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, such as the need for multilingual and culturally tailored health and wellbeing content, and culturally appropriate peer-to-peer health management strategies driven by communities in partnership with health organisations. There are differences within and across refugee and migrant communities too — the health and wellbeing needs of recently arrived groups such as the Sudanese will differ from those more established such as the Vietnamese, while young people are often more engaged with technology than their grandparents and other family members. Yet it is an important move for the federal government to improve the technology foundations necessary for innovative approaches to communicating health and wellbeing information, as well as a range of other services such as finance, education and local community information.

Getting this right now will not only provide refugee, migrant and other communities in regional and rural areas with much needed lower costs for internet access, but could help to reduce the pressure on our already strained health and hospital systems, and the cost of health expenditure in the long term.

Ben O’Mara is a writer and Post Doctoral Research Fellow at Victoria University. His work explores the use and application of information communication technology in the promotion of culturally sensitive messages of health and community wellbeing. The report based on findings from his qualitative research is available here.

This first appeared on Croakey.